PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ Haiti's first carnival under elected rule in four years offers a pastiche of the troubles facing the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation as it perches on democracy's edge.

The annual celebration is beset by perceived threats from rightist forces, short on cash because of a business boycott and mired in political rivalries and mismanagement inherited from past dictatorships.

``We're going to try to do the best we can with the little we have,'' Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul said Saturday, the day before the three-day celebration begins.

Carnival is a season of merrymaking that ends with Lent, the 40 days before Easter observed by Christians as a period of penitence and fasting. It traditionally is a time to surrender to music, costumes and spectacle.

But its inner workings give a glimpse into the problems that have handicapped the government of elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide since American troops returned him to power from military-enforced exile on Oct. 15.

Bitterness about economic hardship lingers. Many had hoped for better lives after foreign nations promised aid and Aristide returned.

``But that is why more people will come to carnival,'' said businessman Jean-Chevalier Sanon, an organizer. ``The tougher the crisis, the more people feel the need to forget their frustrations and dance away the tensions.''

Many would-be participants have been scared off by a government warning last week that anti-democratic forces are plotting to disrupt carnival with attacks on processions.

The U.S.-led multinational force has promised its troops will keep the peace. It acknowledges that foreign governments and investors will be using carnival to gauge progress under Aristide.

Still, the ``Carnival of Hope,'' as it has been dubbed, appears to lack both faith and charity.

Its budget, initially set at $3 million by Culture Minister Jean-Claude Bajeux, has been slashed to $850,000. The city halls of Petionville and Delmas, both suburbs of Port-au-Prince, have refused to participate, saying their allowances were too small.

Businessmen who usually contribute most of the carnival budget refused to comment on the record. But one business leader said, ``The government agreed to impose a three-year embargo on us, all the promises of investment and aid have produced nothing so far, so now we are going to impose an embargo on the carnival.''

He was referring to the punishing international embargo imposed against the army dictatorship that ousted Aristide in 1991.

Organizers have been plagued by rivalries between Bajeux and the mayor, whose parties were in the coalition that nominated Aristide and split last week.

``Carnival is not political. We want to make this one a good one, to encourage the tourists back and to help the economy,'' said Sanon, the organizer.

But putting on a good carnival helps win votes, and politicians are looking to the June 4 legislative elections, which will prove the biggest test of Haiti's progress toward democracy.

Meanwhile, Sanon's committee prepares the costumes of dictators who terrorized Haitians in the past, such as former army ruler Raoul Cedras.

``Historically, carnival is used by the people to poke fun at those they are too fearful to make fun of normally,'' Sanon said. ``Now that we're democratic, I'm sure people will be out there tomorrow parodying Cedras.''